A Damned Good Investment

Paul Foot

  • Studded with Diamonds and Paved with Gold: Miners, Mining Companies and Human Rights in South Africa by Laurie Flynn
    Bloomsbury, 358 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1155 1

Everyone knows that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, that diamonds are for ever, but where do the diamonds come from? It’s a question that Keats asked, and he was pretty indignant about the answer.

With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandise,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quivered loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip; with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.

‘Why were they proud. Why in the name of glory were they proud?’ Keats demanded of the dazzling trio. That it might be wrong that so many human beings should suffer in order that others can dress up in diamonds seems to have been lost on the South African mining industry, which provides most of the world’s supply of the gems. It appears never to have occurred to them that the black migrants who dig the diamonds out of the ground have any grievances. A much more serious problem for the mining companies has been that the miners might steal diamonds, swallow them, excrete them and sell them on the open market. This is one of the reasons for the ‘common latrine’, the long metal trench in which diamond miners are obliged communally to defecate. Some engineering genius associated with the industry has designed a new machine which sifts through the miners’ stools and detects the slightest particle of excreted diamond.

When I read about this machine in Studded with Diamonds and Paved with Gold, I thought Laurie Flynn must be exaggerating. A week later, two women came into my office at the Daily Mirror. They had worked for a total of forty years, they said, as diamond sorters, at the sumptuous London headquarters of the diamond mining company De Beers, just across the road, but had recently been sacked – for allegedly stealing diamonds. Allegedly? How had this crime been proved? Well, they explained, no diamonds had been found on them or in their homes, for the very good reason that they hadn’t taken any. They had been accused of stealing, and sacked, because of ‘unusual movements’ they had made with their hands while sorting the diamonds. These ‘unusual movements’ (touching ears was especially suspicious) had been picked up on the video under whose Big Brotherly gaze they had been working. I concluded that if De Beers could sack white people on such a flimsy basis in good old democratic London, they were perfectly capable of designing special machines to sift through black miners’ shit in Kimberley and the Cape.

It is 25 years since Laurie Flynn helped to occupy the London School of Economics in 1968 – and nearly twenty years since he came cursing and fuming into the offices of Socialist Worker to write a tremendous indictment of the Scottish lagging industry, whose negligence with asbestos had sentenced thousands of unsuspecting workers to death. Unlike so many other angry young journalists of the Sixties, Laurie Flynn has not lost his indignation, nor his determination to publicise the sins of negligent employers. For most of the Eighties he worked for Granada’s World in Action, one of the few redoubts of investigative journalism to survive that grim decade. World in Action provided him with the funds and the facilities necessary to expose on film this most secretive industry.

The discovery of the automated crap-sifter came from Flynn’s study of the eating, toilet and medical facilities afforded to migrant workers by the mining companies. Gabriel Hlaele, a black miner, told him:

Now Kloof is a big mine with 15,000 workers and every day there will be fifty or more men in for acclimatisation in the heat chambers. If you faint you get your temperature taken in two places. First the mouth, then the anus. But this is Gold fields, remember. Everything here is planned and organised along military lines. I imagine that they believe it would be wasteful to have too many thermometers. But for whatever reason the thermometer that measures the temperature in your mouth is also the thermometer that measures the temperature in your anus. And they don’t throw the thermometers away you know. There isn’t a new one for every different individual.

At the Penge asbestos mine in the Eastern Transvaal, Cyprian Gabetse saw a ‘big strong man’ hitting a sack with a whip. Inside the sack was a 12-year-old boy: ‘it was his job to get inside the bag and trample down the fluffy asbestos.’ Needless to say, the boy had already contracted asbestosis. He will not live long. But few black miners in South Africa do: only 5 per cent get to pensionable age. Thousands die as the result of outright negligence by the owners.

In 1967 nine miners were killed in a fire at Michael colliery in Scotland. The detailed inquiry which followed blamed the deaths on the poisonous fumes from polyurethane foam which had lined the roofs and walls underground. The National Coal Board promptly banned polyurethane foam from its pits, and sent its findings to mine-owners all over the world, including the South African Chamber of Mines. Five years later, the case against polyurethane foam was established beyond all doubt with the deaths by choking of 91 miners at the Sunshine Mine in Idaho in the United States. The owners of the mine had to pay punitive damages because they had ignored the findings of the Michael inquiry. Once again, the story was circulated all over the world. Eight years later still, in 1980, the South African mining company Gencor was faced with a problem at its Kinross mine: rocks were falling on the rail tracks and preventing the movement of mined gold. There were plenty of available remedies, including cement. That, however, would have been expensive and would have held up the daily flow of gold. So Gencor plumped for a cheaper option: polyurethane foam. Six years after the foam was installed a fire down the mine killed 177 miners. Most of the deaths were due directly to the foam. For this, one man was fined 40 rand. As Flynn’s chapter-heading has it, in the South African mining industry ‘death is part of the process.’ Eighty thousand miners have been killed in accidents in South African mines this century; they are still dying at the rate of eight hundred a year. These figures are six times worse than their equivalents in Britain or the United States.

If this book was nothing but a catalogue of horror, it would be distressing enough. But it is more than that. Laurie Flynn links the squalor of the compounds to the men and women whose comfortable lifestyle is funded by dividends from the South African mines. Eighty years ago an Australian writer reckoned that for every 1200 rand paid in South African mining dividends there was a ‘known and avoidable death’. The figures are not much less shocking today. Between 1950 and 1970 the Tsumeb mine in Namibia brought its shareholders a return of 348 per cent a year: at least ten times what investors in any sort of mine in the (profitable) US mining industry could hope to collect. And the shareholders don’t have to worry about recession. The group chairman of Consolidated Goldfields, Rudolph Agnew, put the point sensitively in 1985. ‘We are involved in a highly cyclical industry,’ he drawled, ‘and we should take the strain during periods of recession and crisis by maintaining the owners’ income at the highest practicable level.’

The history of Consolidated Goldfields, incidentally, has been written for a fat fee by Paul Johnson, former editor of the New Statesman and later chief jester at the court of Margaret Thatcher. Laurie Flynn tells us that Johnson managed to complete his panegyric without a single interview with a migrant miner. Nor did he mention ‘the migrant labour system, low wages, anti-union attitudes, poor food, bad housing, inadequate shower rooms, dirty toilets and damaged human relations which predominated in Goldfields’ compounds’. The company’s approach appealed to Mr Johnson’s heroine. When Mrs Thatcher needed to appoint a new chairman of British Coal in 1990 she selected an unexciting accountant called Neil Clarke – a director of Consolidated Goldfields. Clarke at once set about closing pits, sometimes illegally, but always with that cheerful disregard for the unions which was the hallmark of Consolidated Goldfields. When she needed an ‘adviser’ on monopolies she chose George Guise, a young executive from Consolidated Goldfields; and when plans were laid by the new Conservative government of 1992 to privatise British Coal, the chief adviser to the consortium widely tipped to take over British pits was the aforesaid George Guise.

There is only one word for what has been going on in the South African mines all this century: exploitation. Black migrant labour has been whipped, humiliated, robbed and murdered to enrich shareholders, mainly in another country, whose concern for most people in South Africa was well summed up by a former mine owner in evidence to a Royal Commission: ‘Why should a nigger be allowed to do nothing?’ The whole vile process has been made much simpler by apartheid and by the backing of Conservative chieftains in London. Lord Erroll of Hale, another chairman of Consolidated Goldfields and a former Tory Cabinet Minister, told the Evening Standard in 1980: ‘South Africa is a damned good investment and one nobody should miss out on.’

There is plenty in Flynn’s book to dilute the despair. More than that, there is, in the last few chapters, a wide measure of hope. Somehow, against all the odds, the miners fought back. The book ends with the growth of the South African National Union of Mineworkers. Laurie Flynn hopes, a little sentimentally, that the South African ‘house of bondage’ will turn into a ‘house of freedom’. That will not happen by magic or by natural development or by negotiations with De Klerk. The forces that built the union against the mining companies are the only forces strong enough to defeat the apartheid state off which those companies flourished for so long.